Concordia University MIGS

Back to Holocaust Memoirs | Back to MIGS

Chapter 5: Red Army Soldier


As time went on, my feet started to heal, but I was far from being able to walk, when one day I received a card from the army recruiting center, to present myself there, to be drafted into the Red Army. After all there was a war going on. When I came there, I was seen by an officer in charge and told him my story. He sent me for a medical examination and the doctor, after examining my feet gave me a month's delay. With the doctor's certificate I had to see the officer again, who, after reading the doctor's recommendation, told me that such a certificate could be obtained for a bottle of vodka and that I should present myself the next day to be shipped out to a training camp and then to the front line. I knew that the training was a very short one and there was no chance that the war would be over by the time I was "trained". At that point I told the officer to give me a chance, so that my feet could heal first and in the meantime I was willing to come to the recruiting center daily to work in the office, as I am a high school graduate and I was sure that there was plenty of work there. As soon as my feet would be healed, he could send me on. He agreed. The next day I started to work.

The office was run by a Russian officer, in name only. The actual daily operations were performed by two young Jewish men by the name of Pecker and Gottesman, who were actually in charge and very efficient. I learned a lot from them. In time I also learned that things were happening at the recruiting center that were not entirely kosher. The system at the office was that every man between the ages of 18 and 55 had a file. That file contained data about the military record of that person and was used for recruiting purposes. If a file disappeared, that person could not be called up, because he didn't exist anymore. These two guys sold some of the files to their owners for big money, or even better, for a load of wood, potatoes, etc. In fact, they became rich and had they been caught, they would have been shot. I strongly suspect that the officer in charge was in on the scheme.

After working there for about 5 weeks, an officer came from the front line and asked the recruiting center to provide him with two men who knew the Rumanian, Russian and German languages, to act as translators at the commendatura of the city of Suceava, located in northern Rumania and at the time occupied by the Russians. Gottesman, who started to be afraid that his dealings will be discovered, thought that this was a good way out of a dangerous situation and volunteered immediately. He was also hoping that by working for the commendatura of the city of Suceava, there would be a good chance of making more money. He came to me to convince me to be the second volunteer and I didn't need too much convincing, because I was afraid to be shipped soon to the training camp and to the front line.

And so, at the end of June 1944, I, still having my feet wrapped in rags, set out on a horse and buggy, together with the Russian officer and Gottesman, towards the city of Suceava, which was about 120 km south of Czernowitz. We crossed the border to Rumania in the area of the town of Siret and we arrived in Suceava. Here we stopped for a little while and then we continued further south. It turned out that the Russian officer who came to recruit us lied when he said that he needed us for the commendatura in Suceava. He said it only to attract the right people. Had he stated the truth, that he needed the two translators for the front line, nobody would have volunteered. We continued south, past the city of Falticeni, which was at that time a ghost town, having been completely evacuated on account of the proximity to the front line and we finally arrived to a big village called Boroia, where the front line was and big gun fire could be heard.

We were given military uniforms and started to work at the department in charge of gathering intelligence information about the enemy. We were supposed to interrogate war prisoners (German and or Rumanian) and file reports about the findings.

During my stay in Boroia, every second day I was taken to a field hospital, where I was treated with proper medication. Soon my feet healed and I started to walk properly. For the next six weeks it was a stationary war. Every night patrols were sent out to try to capture an enemy soldier for the sole purpose of interrogating him. Rarely was one captured and when this happened, it was a Rumanian soldier who was glad that the war for him was over. During that time Gottesman became ill with malaria. He was sent to the field hospital and when they registered him, he declared to be a lieutenant and was entered in the hospital records as such. When, some time later, he was released, he was given a lieutenants uniform, became an instant lieutenant and was sent to another unit, where nobody knew him. I lost track of him for a very long time, until much later.

When we were stationed in Budapest, I heard that he arranged for the transportation of food from western Rumania to the starving people of Budapest. He sold the food for hard currency only to whoever had dollars to pay and made a fortune. But somebody denounced him and he was arrested, court-martialed and executed.

The stationary war in Boroia lasted for me about 6 weeks. In the middle of August of 1944, our unit, the 163th infantry division, was transferred to a new location in the vicinity of the city of Jassy. We were told to dig in and we spent about 3 days in the field. We felt that something big was being prepared. There were too many troop movements and too big a concentration of men, materials and machines. On the evening of August 19 1944, a ration of vodka was distributed to all men and a special supper prepared. On August 20,1944 we were awakened at 4 a.m. by the roar of planes flying overhead in the direction of the front line. Some time later, several tank columns started to move south. It was an extraordinary concentration and display of men and war materials and that was the start of the big Jassy-Kishinev offensive, which led to the capitulation of Rumania on August 23, 1944 and the declaration of King Michael that Rumania will join the allies in the war against Hitler's Germany.

When the offensive started, there was first a long and concentrated artillery barrage, that lasted for about an hour. After that we received the order to advance in the southerly direction. There was hardly any resistance. We saw corpses of men and horses killed by the artillery barrage or run over by tanks. The Rumanian soldiers gave up by the thousands and were taken prisoner. We advanced in a fairly orderly fashion, took one city after another and arrived after several days at a city called Focsani, where we had a two-day rest.

I was stationed in a deserted hospital, where I found a pile of old magazines, among them a collection of a Nazi German magazine called Signal catre Europa, the Rumanian edition of the German magazine Signal an Europa. Looking through one issue from the year 1941 or 1942, I saw a photograph of a group of Jews standing in front of a German SD officer, who was standing on top of the stairs in front of the city hall of the city of Czortkow. It was among them, on that fateful day of July 14 1941, when we were caught inside, where we lived in the Weiss's family house and went through the first of several subsequent Aktions. There were several other photographs from that day taken by German reporters, all with headings that attempted to prove the inferiority of the Jewish race.

After a well-deserved rest, we continued our march west, passing through the city of Ploesti. I was travelling on an army truck, lying on the front left fender, when some shooting occurred. A bullet grazed my left leg, but luckily the wound was a minor one.

We continued to the city of Pitesti, located at the southern edge of the Carpathian mountains, from where we turned north towards the province of Transylvania. We continued our steady advance, past the city of Sibiu in the direction of the city of Cluj. When we reached the outskirts of the city of Turda, we encountered stiff resistance from the Germans and were forced to dig in. The battle for Turda lasted for several weeks. We were living in trenches most of the time and only seldom was I allowed to go to the nearby village to wash and change clothes. Many times, when I had to cross from one trench to another, I had to pass a field and heard the bullets fly close to my ears. I don't pretend to be a hero and was really scared.

An interesting incident happened during the siege of Turda. One day a civilian was brought to me for interrogation, after he was caught crossing the front line from the German side to the Russian side on a bicycle. The man lived in a village on the Russian side and knew that his sister, who was living in Turda was very sick. So, not realizing the danger and not knowing where the line was, he just proceeded on his bicycle on the road leading to Turda, went to visit his sister and was returning home, when he was caught. I let him go home.

Finally Turda fell and we continued our advance to Cluj. We entered the city without much resistance and were stationed there for about two weeks. Major General Karlov, commander of the 163th was named commander of the city for those two weeks. During my stay in Cluj, I walked one day on a commercial street and heard a disturbance inside a jewelry store. I walked in and found myself facing a group of Russian soldiers who were in the process of robbing the owner of the store. I intervened, gave them hell and told them that I would report them to the commander. They left and the owner was so grateful that he gave me a "Longines" ladies watch. Later that year, when I was in Czernowitz during the New Year's celebrations 1944-1945, I gave the watch to Lia Grunberg, who told me in 1959, when I came to Vienna on my way to Canada, that she still had it. I learned later that a friend of mine by the name of Broide, who was also in the Red Army and who faced a similar situation in another city, was shot to death by Russian soldiers when he tried to intervene to prevent a robbery in a jewelry store. He was the only son of his widowed mother.

After a very pleasant two weeks in Cluj we were ordered to move on in the westerly direction. We passed the city of Oradea Mare, crossed into Hungarian territory to the city of Debrezin from where we turned north to the city of Miszkolz. Here we had another pleasant stay of several days, after which we continued north and crossed the border into Czechoslovakia in the vicinity of the town of Roznava. Our stay there was short-lived when we received orders to relocate our unit to Budapest.

During our move towards Budapest, we were stopped by heavy fighting in front of the town of Hatvan. After the Germans finally gave up and retreated, we entered Hatvan in the evening. I entered a house, told the old Hungarian couple to prepare food and after having eaten, went to sleep in a bed located in the next room. During the night I wanted to go to relieve myself, when I saw that the floor of the room was covered wall to wall with other Russian soldiers. I was so tired that I hadn't heard when they entered the room. I had taken off my boots before going to bed and now that I needed them, they disappeared. When, the next morning they brought to me for interrogation a Hungarian officer, I took off his fine boots and gave him an old pair.

In the meantime I heard screaming outside. The old lady was crying that her husband had disappeared. After looking for him all over, he was finally located in a well in the courtyard. He couldn't take the new situation, the desecration of his home and the loss of his stored food and committed suicide by jumping into the well.

When we arrived in Budapest, the city was freed from a siege that lasted several weeks, when the German troops inside Budapest were surrounded by the Red Army. The population of Budapest was starved for food, because during the siege, supplies could not reach the city. People were pulling small carts and going into the countryside to obtain some food from farmers. One could have anything for food: money, art objects, valuables, beautiful women, etc. That was the time when Gottesman made his money speculating in food and lost his life in the process.

The Germans had dug in on the western side of the Danube in Buda. They continued to resist there, even though Buda was completely surrounded by the Red Army, who had already crossed the Danube north and south of Budapest. We were stationed inside the parliament building located on the eastern shores of the Danube. The Germans tried to supply their troops in Buda by dropping cases from planes by parachutes and most of the time, because the wind was blowing from west to east, these supplies would end up in our hands and some would fall into the river.

We were ordered to move on again and crossed the Danube south of Budapest at a new crossing point. A boat with several soldiers was sent over, under the cover of darkness to unroll a cable. They attached the cable to a strong tree, tied boats to the cable, placed a platform on top of the boats and in several hours a bridge was ready that could be used for the crossing of trucks and tanks. We crossed to the other side and established a beachhead that came under permanent bombardment by the Germans.

One day, General Karlov called me and said that he wants me to do a job for him. I was to take 7 suitcases of war booty, expensive clothes, dishes, gifts, jewelry, etc. to his family in Moscow. He would provide me with a truck to take me to Arad, a city on the Rumanian side and a soldier to accompany and help me. In Arad I was to board a train to Bucharest and from there we were to make our way to Moscow. I was very happy to escape the daily bombardment of the Germans. It would also give me a chance to see my parents in Czernowitz and to see Moscow for the first time.

And so we took off and arrived without incident in Bucharest. As I mentioned before, my cousin Any, whose parents, with the rest of my mothers family, were killed in l941 while fleeing the advancing German and Rumanian troops, lived now in Bucharest, having been adopted by the Pascal family. While in Bucharest, I made it my business to look them up. When I arrived at the right address and rang the bell, a maid came to open the door, and when she saw two Russian soldiers at the door, got scared and ran to call Mr. Pascal. He also got scared when he saw us, but things got cleared up fast and they welcomed me with open arms when they found out that I was Any's cousin.

The next day, we boarded a train to Jassy, where we were supposed to change trains because the Rumanian train did not fit the Russian tracks. The railway station in Bucharest was a chaotic mess. The train was overcrowded, but some wagons were reserved for the Russian military. Many people traveled on the roof of the train. As soon as we took our seats, we heard a shot coming from the roof and a bullet hit my companion in the foot. Immediately he was taken off the train to a first aid station, where a doctor took care of his wound, it was nothing serious. An investigation was carried out but nothing was found. The next day we boarded the train again and continued our journey. We changed trains in Jassy and continued towards Moscow. It was evening when we left Jassy and my soldier assistant went to explore the rest of the train. I fell asleep. During the night, I was awakened by my assistant, who seemed to be very disturbed. He told me that he got involved with a group of people in a card game, lost all his money and on top of it, also lost a Schaffhausen gold wrist watch that was given to him by General Karlov to deliver to the General's family. He begged me to help him. So I went to the other car, where the card game took place, identified the other players and made a deal with them. I gave them my Doxa wrist watch and 100 Rubles and retrieved the gold watch. I kept it for myself and had it until I left Rumania, when I was forced to change it for a chrome watch because no gold object was permitted to be taken out of Rumania.

We finally made it to Moscow and delivered the 7 suitcases to this General's family. They lived in a small apartment and were lovely people. His wife was very nice and good looking and so were his son and daughter teenagers, very well behaved. The next evening I was invited to dinner with them. After dinner his wife told me that she wanted to ask me some questions in private. We went to another room and she started to ask me question about her husband concerning relationships with other women in general, but with one other woman in particular, who appeared together with the General in a number of photographs in different places and in a way too close to be innocent. I knew about this relationship. There were a number of Russian girls in the army, young and attractive, who were working in the office, in the kitchen, or directing traffic during a period of offensive and advancement. I denied any knowledge of the affair but she insisted that something must have happened because she had photographs to prove it.

I thanked her for supper and after she gave me a letter to her husband, I left. The girl, that the General had an affair with, by the name of Shura, was also in Moscow at the same time, having been given a leave by the General to see her parents and I was staying with them during my three days in Moscow. I did not tell her the story.

In Moscow I visited the sights and attended a play at the Jewish State Theatre.

When I returned, my division was already way past Budapest and had just crossed the Austrian border. I presented myself to the General, gave him the letter from his wife and left. Next day he called me and gave me hell, because, according to him, I told his wife about his affair. Only after I told him about the forgotten photographs in one of the suitcases, did he calm down and let me off easy. He must have taken a liking to me because after the end of the war in Europe in the spring of 1945, when he was transferred to the far eastern front as commander of the city of Chang-Chung in Manchuria, he offered to take me along, even though I was of no use as a translator, not speaking any of the far eastern languages.

We continued our advance into Austria in the direction of the city of Graz. As soon as I returned to my unit, I became sick with malaria and was admitted to a field hospital. After several days of treatment I felt better.

It was May 8, 1945 and rumors were flying around that a cease fire is in the making and that at 0 hour May 9 the guns will fall silent. These news were so exciting that I grabbed my clothes and left the hospital without even being discharged and looked for my unit to join the march forward. We advanced to the west along the beautiful Austrian countryside. In the evening we started to climb a mountain road. It was a long climb and we arrived at the top around midnight. There we found a village fast asleep. We were ordered a rest of several hours. We knocked at the doors of the houses and let ourselves in. We ordered the occupants to prepare food for us, which they did, being well stocked with bacon, eggs, ham, cider, etc. I saw a radio in the corner of the room, turned it on and it worked, as the electric power was on. There were news on the radio that came from the radio station in Graz, which was still in German hands. The news, which I understood, stated that heavy fighting was going on on the Hungarian side, still far from where we were. I made the occupants listen to the news to prove to them that the Germans were lying.

Around 4 a.m. we started the descent towards Graz. We entered the city around 9 a.m. on a beautiful spring day, May 9, 1945 and saw a peaceful picture for the first time after many years, of people going to work and children dressed in festive attire. The people of Graz were shocked to see Russians occupying the city without a fight; they were not even aware that a cease-fire was in effect. At the entrance to the city there was a huge parking lot full of cars and trucks in working order, which were abandoned by the Germans for lack of gasoline. We helped ourselves to these cars and trucks and had much more comfortable transportation from then on. We were stationed in Graz for several days, in houses abandoned by German . The American army coming from the west, came close to Graz and one day an official meeting was organized between the Russian and American representatives to celebrate the victory. After that our unit was pulled back and was stationed in the town of Gleisdorf, where we stayed for several months.

In the fall of 1945 we received orders to return to the Soviet Union and our return trip began. It took some time to travel through Austria, Hungary and Rumania. When we arrived in the vicinity of the city of Suceava, I asked my commander for permission to go and see my parents, who were in Radauti, only about 50 km away. He gave me permission, provided me with a car and driver, (who was supposed also to keep an eye on me) and I went to Radauti. My parents were thrilled to see me and I spent with them 24 hours. All my efforts to legally remain in Rumania were useless.

About the same time some people from Radauti, who were caught on the Russian side while returning from deportation, started to return to Rumania. To be able to return to Rumania, they had to prove to the Soviet authorities that they were deported to Transnistria from Rumania in 1941. When I found that out during my stay in Radauti, I went to the Jewish community administration and obtained a document that looked very official, with stamp and signature, stating that I was deported in 1941 to Transnistria, from Radauti. This actually wasn't true because I wasn't even there in 1941, but it was good enough to help me return to Rumania as you will see later on.

The next day I returned to my unit and we crossed the border to the Soviet Union and settled in the city of Kamenetz-Podolsk in the western Ukraine.

Kamenetz-Podolsk is a pleasant city with a huge park in the center, where an orchestra played every evening and where we danced with local girls. There is also the old city, where a fort built by the Turks is located at the entrance to the city, when they reached that far north. I was living in a house belonging to an old Ukrainian couple, who treated me as if I was their son. They cooked for me, washed my laundry, and I felt at home there. I had a Russian friend, a soldier, who told me that there is no chance of returning to Rumania, that the Soviets will never let me go. He offered to take me to his family in Siberia and make me part of it, kind of adopt me, after demobilization. I was trying, however, to devise a plan to return to my parents in Rumania.

And so, the winter of 1945-1946 came and I spent it in Kamenetz- Podolsk, reading, going to the movies, going to dances, and generally having a good time.

In January of 1946 the Supreme Soviet decided to start demobilizing certain categories of army personnel. Among the first ones to be demobilized were former teachers. Here I saw a chance. I asked for and received permission to go to Czernowitz for a one week vacation. From Kamenetz-Podolsk to Czernowitz the distance is about 100 km, but with no regular transportation, one had to hitch-hike with army trucks. There was no bridge over the Dniester River, so the crossing was done on a ferry.

When I arrived in Czernowitz, I looked up the family of Doctor Mayer. They used to live in Seletin before the war and Doctor Mayer was our family doctor. He even assisted at my birth. They were glad to have me and I stayed there the whole week. When I told them of my problem, Doctor Mayer told me that he might be able to help. He had a patient who worked for the school board and when he approached him, he was willing to issue a document stating that I was employed as a teacher with the school board from 1940 to 1941, when the war started. With that document in my possession, I started my journey back. When I arrived to the city of Xotin, situated on the banks of the Dniester, I was told that there are big chunks of ice floating down the river and that the crossing will be delayed until next day. The next day I boarded the ferry and we started the crossing. When we got as far as the middle of the river, ice surrounded the ferry and froze solid, so that the ferry became immobilized. It was so cold on the ferry and the wind made it almost impossible to breathe. There was a truck on the ferry and we took turns to go inside the cabin to warm up. Towards evening, a tractor was brought to the banks of the river and a small boat came close to the ferry bringing a cable that was attached to it. The tractor started to pull the ferry back to where we started from, that is Xotin, where we spent the night. I was already late to return to my unit and had no way to communicate with them to tell them what is happening. Next day the ferry could not move. The only way to cross the river was on small boats. The boats were made from the sheet metal roofs of the passenger compartments of abandoned or destroyed German army trucks and belonged to private people. I paid for my crossing and the boat took me to the other side, floating between huge chunks of ice.

I finally made it to Kamenetz-Podolsk and when I explained what happened, my commander understood. But when I presented myself to the personnel department with the document from Czernowitz, claiming that I was to be demobilized, they told me that such a document could be obtained for a bottle of vodka and refused to recognize it. I heard that line before and of course they were right. I was stuck again.

In March of 1946, the Soviets decided to hold the first post war elections for the Supreme Soviet. These were the type of elections when the Communist party candidates always won with a majority of 99.7%. Before the elections everybody had to register for the electoral lists. But when I was told to go and register, I refused, stating that I was not a Soviet citizen and therefore I had no right to vote. I declared to be a Rumanian citizen. When the personnel department heard that I refused to register for the vote and the reason I gave, they gave up on me and in March 1946 I was demobilized from the Red Army, given a new set of clothes and new boots and sent on my way.

I returned to Czernowitz to find out what possibilities there are to cross the border to Rumania. 22 months have passed since I was drafted into the Red Army and a lot of things had happened since. The war was over (in Europe at least) and the former allies were about to embark on a cold war that will last until the late eighties and would affect peoples lives on a global scale.

Being in Czernowitz, I found out that there was an army commission, whose job it was to verify individual cases of people who came back from the concentration camps and want to return to Rumania. This commission had the right to issue travelling documents to those people, once they were found to be originally from Rumania. I presented myself to this commission and was sent to an officer to whom I explained that I was deported from Radauti in 1941. I showed him the document that I obtained during my passing through Radauti in the fall of 1945, signed by the secretary of the Jewish community administration. The document was in Rumanian and when the officer said he doesn't understand Rumanian, I offered to translate it for him, which I did, and he accepted my translation. When he saw that it was signed by a "secretary", he asked me if the signature is from the secretary of the Rumanian consulate and when I said yes, he issued me the travel documents that I needed to cross the border into Rumania.

I finally returned to Radauti March 26, 1946. Almost six years had passed since I left Radauti in June of 1940 to go to Seletin for my summer vacation. Now, Seletin was on the Russian side and I don't know if I will ever see the place where I was born again.

Editors' Introduction

This is an unusual document of great importance. Much of the survival literature, published and unpublished, deals with the victims’ experiences in concentration camps. Much less is known about the persecution and suffering of those victims who never saw the insides of such camps.

Most of the Jews from such areas as Bucovina, Rumania, Transylvania and Transnistria, etc., did not experience the horrors of the killing camps. That does not mean that they were spared any suffering. Quite the contrary: they were moved into ghettos, forced into inhuman living conditions, and chased from one community to another in order to create "Judenrein" towns and villages. In this process they were tortured, beaten, and worked to death. Very few survived.

The importance of this memoir is twofold. On the one hand, it reports in concrete and merciless detail a phase of the Holocaust that is not well known. On the other hand, it underlines the oversimplifications of those analysts who characterize the Holocaust in terms of technological sophistication, bureaucratic efficiency, and ideological commitment. Clearly, historic hatred and a permissive regime were quite sufficient to produce the same results.

Back to Key Words and Abstract

To Epilogue

© Concordia University